SMYRNA, Ga. – When Pope Francis was elected in March, Bridget Kurt received a small prayer card with his picture at her church and put it up on her refrigerator at home, next to pictures of her friends and her favorite saints.
She is a regular attender of mass, a longtime stalwart in her church’s anti-abortion movement and a believer that all the Catholic Church’s doctrines are true and beautiful. She loved the past two popes, and keeps a scrapbook with memorabilia from her road trip to Denver in 1993 to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day.
But Kurt recently took the Pope Francis prayer card down and threw it away.
“It seems he’s focusing on bringing back the left that’s fallen away, but what about the conservatives?” said Kurt, a hospice community educator. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you. Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”
In the eight months since he became pope, Francis has won affection for his humble mien and common touch. His approval numbers are skyrocketing. Even atheists are applauding.
But not everyone is so enchanted. Some in the church’s conservative wing in the United States say that Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled. On the Internet and in conversations among themselves, they despair that after 35 years in which the previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, drew clear boundaries between right and wrong, Francis is muddying Catholic doctrine in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and so everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”
They were stunned when they saw that Francis said in that interview, “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin when he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, gay marriage and contraception because the church cannot be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”
Steve Skojec, vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements, “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”
Skojec said Friday that he was overwhelmed by the positive response to his blog from people who said they were thinking the same things but had not wanted to say it in public. He said he has come to suspect that Francis is a “self-styled revolutionary” who wants to change the church fundamentally.
“There have been bad popes in the history of the church,” said Skojec. “Popes that murdered, popes that had mistresses. I’m not saying Pope Francis is terrible, but there’s no divine protection that keeps him from being the type of guy who with subtlety undermines the teachings of the church to bring about a different vision.”
Most American Catholics do not share his objections. A poll taken soon after the interview by Quinnipiac University found that 2 in 3 agreed that the church is too “obsessed” with a few issues.
No contradictions found
In parsing Francis’ statements in recent weeks, other Catholic conservatives are concluding that nothing he has said contradicts the Catholic catechism, with some of his language even echoing Benedict’s. But in interviews, among the words conservatives used most often to characterize Francis was “imprudent” because he says things in ways that the news media and the church’s “enemies” are able to distort, and that there are consequences.
Some Catholic conservatives are sharing over the Internet prophecies that foretell of tribulations for the church. In one, an Irish woman predicted that Benedict would be held hostage. Others cite the German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote of a “relationship between two popes,” one who “lives in a palace other than before,” which some now see as a reference to Benedict. During this time there arises a “false Church of darkness.”
But some Catholics initially alarmed by Francis’ remarks are now trying to calm others down.
Judie Brown, president and co-founder of the American Life League, a Catholic anti-abortion group, said, “Pro-lifers are upset because they feel the pope is selling out the pro-life movement. And that’s not at all correct. If you read everything he’s been saying … there’s no question that where he stands is consistent with what the church has been teaching.”
At the Pregnancy Aid Clinic in Hapeville, Ga., a Catholic-run nonprofit center where women who come for pregnancy tests are counseled against abortion, staff members gathered around a kitchen table last week and said they had been trying to take the pope’s message to heart.
The room was crammed with baskets of empty baby bottles to be distributed to Atlanta parishes to fill with coins and bills as donations. The staff members said that most priests are far from obsessed with abortion or contraception, preaching against it only during “Respect Life Sunday.”
“When a pope makes a statement off the cuff or in an interview, it’s not an infallible statement,” said Chris Baran, the clinic’s board president. “What he said in a statement does not change any teaching of the church that’s been around over 2,000 years.”